TV reviews

Doctor Who – ‘The Power Of The Daleks’ Special Edition – DVD Review

“Life depends on change and renewal.”

On the evening of Saturday October 29th 1966, a piece of television history was made. Before the eyes of the nation, William Hartnell transmogrified into Patrick Troughton, in the first ever regeneration of the lead character in Doctor Who. Hartnell had been suffering with arteriosclerosis for a number of years, making it hard for him to recall his lines, so he reluctantly stood down.

In those days, Doctor Who was on air for around 45 weeks a year, recorded ‘as live’ with limited breaks or retakes, just a couple of weeks before transmission. With Hartnell’s poor health making it increasingly difficult for him to cope with the grind of the production treadmill, the creative team at the time came up with the notion that as the Doctor was an alien, there was no reason that he could not transform into a whole new body and persona.

Troughton’s first proper appearance in the role took place on Bonfire Night 1966, in ‘The Power Of The Daleks’, with the idea being that having a popular returning foe for the new Doctor’s first story would help ease the transition for the audience. The future success of the show depended on the viewers accepting a new actor in the lead role, so it was something of a risk; with the programme still in production today, you could confidently say it worked.

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Sadly, the last existing copy of the six episodes comprising ‘The Power Of The Daleks’ was destroyed in 1975. Besides a short clip of the regeneration scene from Hartnell’s final episode, next to nothing still exists of Troughton’s debut – a few excerpts survived by being used in other shows, and a fan in Australia filmed some brief snippets off the TV using an 8mm cine camera; the full audio track was also recorded by enterprising UK fans on reel-to-reel tapes.

However, with all the existing stories released on DVD, the BBC looked to try and fill in the gaps by recreating missing adventures using animation. ‘The Power Of The Daleks’ was originally commissioned for release on November 5th 2016, to mark the story’s 50th anniversary; the animation team’s deadline was shortened from eight months to just five, and it meant that there had to be certain compromises made in order to get it finished in time, with the final product sadly not being up to the standard they had hoped for.

The same group of animators went on to put together ‘The Macra Terror’ and ‘The Faceless Ones’, both missing tales, before being approached in mid-2019 about the possibility of redoing ‘The Power Of The Daleks’, to mark Troughton’s 100th birthday in 2020. Despite work on the project having inevitably been affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the revamped animation has been delivered more or less to schedule, along with a raft of brand new extras.

Opening with the aftermath of the first regeneration, ‘The Power Of The Daleks’ sees companions Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) trying to comprehend quite what has happened, and whether this stranger could actually be the Doctor. The TARDIS lands on the planet Vulcan (no, not that one – Star Trek narrowly beat Doctor Who to having a planet by that name, as the series made its television debut on Thursday September 8th 1966), in the year 2020.

The murder of an official examiner from Earth ends up with the newly-regenerated Doctor taking his identity in order to find the killer. While investigating the examiner’s death, the Doctor learns that a scientist, Lesterson (Robert James), has found a space capsule which sat at the bottom of a mercury swamp for hundreds of years. Given the title of the story, it should come as little surprise as to the capsule’s contents; it then falls to the Doctor to try and persuade the colonists as to the terrible danger that everybody is in, before time runs out and the Daleks take over.

As most fans would have bought the original 2016 edition, the big question is whether or not they should double-dip (or, in some cases, triple – there had also been a Steelbook limited edition, which contained an exclusive colour version of the black & white animation). For any die-hard collectors of anything, there is nothing worse than feeling as though you are being fleeced for a new version of something which you have already purchased in good faith, particularly if you have concerns about it being value for money.

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Thankfully, this regenerated version of ‘The Power Of The Daleks’ more than justifies the cost of investing in a copy. The original release was a little ragged around the edges at points, and while it was a minor miracle it was completed in such a remarkably short turnaround, the rushed production schedule was reflected in some of the animation; characters at times moved like they were in Captain Pugwash, and in a few instances the outlines even appeared as though they had been drawn using a thick eyeliner pencil.

This time round, these little niggles have all been sorted, thanks to having more time to go back and fix things, as well as having all the accumulated experience from working on other animations in-between 2016 and 2020. Movement now is a lot smoother and slicker, freed of the occasional jerkiness which blighted the original. Most of the first episode has been redone from scratch, giving the story a far stronger opening, as this part had suffered the most on the 2016 release.

Strategic reworking is also evidenced throughout all five of the tale’s other instalments, an increased number of shots and angles being used, with the effect of making the story more fluid and less static. A significant number of shots in the tale have been reframed, with different positioning and backgrounds; zooms and pans are employed to again give a much greater overall sense of movement. Characterisation and performances have also been improved, particularly in portraying Lesterson’s growing instability.

However, the new version is not entirely free of controversy, as there have been minor tweaks in places to tighten up the pacing, by truncating some of those gaps and pauses which would have been tricky to cover with animation, and would not have been able to be edited down with the rather basic equipment available when the shows were made back in the mid-‘60s. One short snippet in the first episode which was problematic to animate has been excised altogether, but it has still been included on the release, tucked away in there as an Easter egg.

The care and attention given to classic Doctor Who stories on DVD and Blu-ray is little short of spectacular. The very notion of an off-air mono home audio recording made in 1966 being remastered so that a 5.1 surround mix could be created is utterly mindboggling, yet that is exactly what we get here, albeit ported across from the 2016 release. All of the original extras are present here, and these alone were a very impressive collection to accompany a bit of television which was made five decades earlier.

Since then, a number of materials related to this story have turned up, including new photos of the production in studio, as well as very brief fragments of film footage; the film has been included in situ, alongside all the other existing clips, as part of a separate recreation of the tale, which combines these snippets with a mixture of ‘Telesnaps’ (a set of off-air photos, professionally taken as the story was aired), CGI animation, and Photoshopped images.

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A couple of 1960s BBC regional news pieces, featuring the Daleks, have also been discovered in the archives, and they have been included as part of the new release. Two wholly new ‘making of’ featurettes have been put together, giving a fascinating look at contemporary production methods and technology available at the time. A 1992 VHS documentary – Daleks: The Early Years – is presented here, along with a 1993 Tom Baker-narrated audio release of ‘The Power Of The Daleks’ on cassette.

Perhaps the most interesting of all the generous extras are a vintage 1968 episode of Whicker’s World – ‘I Don’t Like My Monsters To Have Oedipus Complexes’ – in which Alan Whicker interviews a number of people associated with the scary and macabre, from the Dalek creator Terry Nation, to Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele, and Screaming Lord Sutch; and the existing 15-minute segment from a live 1953 BBC Robin Hood serial, starring Patrick Troughton as the lead, his earliest surviving TV performance.

The improved animation alone should justify getting this Special Edition release of ‘The Power Of The Daleks’; when combined with the impressive brand new extras, it should be an unmissable addition to any fans’ collections. For the more casual viewer, this is still an essential buy, in order to see such a momentous piece of television brought back to life. In the story, the Daleks cry “WE WILL GET OUR POWER”; you should make sure that you get it, too.

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